At forty-five miles per hour, I am going faster than the maximum speed limit of several European roads. The wind screams past my ears with a high whine and wisps of clammy hair stick to my scalp like stubborn lime scales at the bottom of the kettle. All around me, people are flailing their arms wildly and tumbling clumsily on top of each other. I permit myself an un-lady-like smirk and continue smoothly on my way. Past a yelling quarrelling bunch of kids, past a boy who can’t cease spinning like a top, past an elderly couple who look like they are being tortured on a trapeze, past the three stewards who are trying to cajole one little girl forward, but who obstinately refuses to budge an inch.
Even as I build up my speed and consider doing a graceful pirouette – for, yes, I am on the local ice rink – everything crashes into nothingness and I am shaken rudely out of my fancy by the car braking. ‘Here we are!’ announces a bright voice at my side and a moment later I am walking up to the counter for my skates.
‘Which size would you like?’ asks the receptionist.
‘Mine!’ say I happily, grinning like an excited child taken to its first movie.
The man looks askance at me, as though making up his mind whether I am being funny or plain stupid.
‘This is my first time, I don’t know the standard sizes yet,’ I explain.
‘Six,’ he says definitely after glancing at my feet and goes off to fetch a suitable pair.
While I wait for him to return, I look around the rink with curiosity. It appears a lot smaller than I had imagined. I am disappointed. How crowded it is, too! Every square inch of space seems to be occupied by a human limb or two. How ever do people manage to find place to skate?
The receptionist returns with a soiled blue pair of tough plastic skates. I look at them with distaste. ‘Dainty pink things are for ballet,’ sniggers a little voice inside my head. Oh yeah.
I cringe slightly as I hand over my own shoes. That they are still recognisable as some sort of footwear is about the kindest thing that can be said about them. They have been stuck together at so many places with superglue, it is a wonder my feet can actually slide in and out without leaving some bit of skin behind. As I draw the unexpectedly heavy skates towards myself, the toe pick leaves a long scratch on the wooden surface of the counter. Shamelessly ignoring the malevolent eye that the man is now giving me, I ask in my best ingratiating whimper, ‘How do I put them on, please?’ The man grudgingly condescends to demonstrate tucking in the tongue, tightening the strap and hooking the clasp. Neat.
Sitting down on a nearby bench I marvel at the sharp thin blade on the sole of each boot and wonder suspiciously if it will hold my not-inconsiderable weight. I struggle to put them on and tentatively stand up. I totter. I teeter. I dodder. Then miraculously I stabilise. A few more steps and I find that as long as I don’t move too much I tend to stay upright. The entrance to the rink suddenly seems very far away. I search for the old resolve, find it hiding behind some obscure recesses of my mind, drag it out straining and kicking and steel it. I promise myself a delicious chocolate cookie if I make it to the gate. Also say a quick prayer in case I don’t. A helping hand comes up at my elbow and steers me towards my destination.
I step into the rink.
It is the beginning of the end.
As the earth gives way from under my feet, I cry out hoarsely and slither down the door-post, hanging on to it for dear life. I implore Providence for anything, even a rusted door-nail, if only it will provide me with a handhold. But the surface is sleek, smooth and unmerciful. Even the cracks, usually so ubiquitous in all public places, are missing. Mentally cursing the day I trimmed my finger-nails, I am just preparing myself to take my last gasp and expire, when all at once, the world stands still. Astonished to find myself vertical, I peek at my feet and the dirty blue boots smile triumphantly up at me as if to say ‘You looked down upon us but we didn’t let you down.’ I stare reverently at them. If I could I would almost certainly have bent down and kissed them.
I take a firmer grip on the gate and risk a quick look around. Far from toppling over each other, people are grace itself. They slue, skid, slither, slip and generally coast along as though born on ice. They perform tricks going backwards, they skate on one leg and hold the other in the air, they give little jumps and big leaps, they spin, they twist and they turn, downright gambolling as if it were not treacherous ice but air beneath their feet.
Taking heart from this scene of frolicking activity, I take another stab at putting my foot forward. The ol’ ship rocks, but holds steady. I take another step, then another. Looking back I observe proudly that I have moved a princely four feet away from the shore. Bit by bit, holding on to the wall of the rink, I make my way alongside its outer circumference, and am just congratulating myself on having nearly accomplished a mission fraught with unmentionable dangers, when disaster strikes. Up ahead, a corner of the rink has been coned off for private practice. The only path available to me is straight across the vast expanse of ice. Gulp.
Measly though the support from the rink wall is, it is as much a support for my moral courage. To walk across the open span of the rink where even this is not available, is enough to give even the bravest pause. The alternative is to double back the way I have just come. Intimately acquainted as I am with my luck, I very much doubt if it would hold on the return journey as it has on the outward one.
The difficulties of the decision having thus been taken care of simply by lack of choice, I take a deep breath and let go. The wall, I mean, not the breath. I naturally need all the wind I can hold to help me maintain my delicate balance. ‘It’s just a matter of taking it one cone at a time and doing exactly what I have been doing for the past twenty minutes’, I tell myself sternly in a hopeless attempt at calm. In that five-degrees-below-zero temperature beads of perspiration appear on my brow. My heart is beating hammer and tongs, my knees are knocking together like a couple of pendulums and my fingers can’t stop shaking. Do people actually do this for fun?
Innumerable human bodies suddenly loom large, moving in all directions with the velocity of bullets spewing out from an automatic, and appearing no less deadly. Throwing both hands out like a tight-rope walker, I launch myself into the melee in the middle. Bit by bit, I pass one cone, then another, then yet another. Halfway across, I lose my head and toddle. My ankles threaten to fly out from under me in opposite directions. But eventually equilibrium prevails. The wall of the rink gets nearer and nearer until my fingers finally close in upon it. I fling myself onto the bench outside and collapse from sheer delight.
The supreme feat achieved, another ten minutes later I am chomping on a chocolate cookie. Much as I may be a natural at this sort of thing, I am taking lessons next month!